Last week I watched a BBC Natural World documentary about Owls, the photography was quite good and the narration was well-spoken; it was after all Paul McGann. Yet at the end of this hour-long programme I had only learnt one new thing – not because I know a lot, but because the programme did not go into any depth above very basic biology. One thing really made me sit up and get angry though was that the programme felt it was necessary to explain the concept of sound, sound is moving air; this is stuff taught in primary schools yet this was a programme broadcast in the early evening and clearly aimed at a wide audience of people interested in wildlife.
Unfortunately this is not an exception; it is now the rule with nature documentaries today. I am not the only person to notice the constant and increasing ‘dumbing down’ of such programmes. It started about five years ago, the narrator now has to explain the simplest concepts, really basic science, in what is quite frankly a patronising manner. Is this because the programme makers no longer have faith in the viewers intelligence and/or schooling, or is it because schooling really isn’t very good anymore? I don’t like to admit it but even David Attenborough documentaries are nowhere near as good as they used to be; watch ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ or any of his ‘Life’ series and I promise that you will learn several new things in each episode – he educates without underestimating the intelligence of the viewer. But his most recent ones (where he is only credited with narration) seem to be only here to shock and awe viewers with amazing camera shots and HD images – rather than educate.
Going back to the owl programme; another annoying thing is the amount of ‘filler’, for starters there is a five-minute introduction to the programme explaining what it is about and revealing images of shots from later in the programme – spoiling some of the surprises. Then it takes Mr McGann about three times as long as necessary to explain just one point or aspect of the owls biology – using very simple, slow terms, as though speaking to a child. If you were to remove the intro and all the random ‘filler’ and cut down the explanation times, this programme would only be about twenty minutes long with about six main facts which you could easily have read and learnt in half the time by reading a chapter of a book on the subject.
My question is; why have they decided to dumb these wildlife documentaries down? It is not as though there is not an audience; I cannot be the only person interested in wildlife who actually wants to watch an educational show. Think how many biologists, conservationists, animal/plant specialists, amateur naturalists and average Joes who like wildlife there are in Britain alone. All these people, from scientists to twelve year-old kids, already know loads about nature because they love it and read about it and watch (old) nature documentaries and go out into the field and learn. They are not dumb and do not need to have every simple point explained, they want to learn more and be shown fantastic wildlife that they might not otherwise be able to see (such as tropical butterflies). The one exception to this rant is ‘Springwatch’ and all the other ‘watches’, because they actually do real, proper science and do not shy away from explaining sometimes difficult subjects (like the effect of human drugs in waste water on birds) and show things about nature in your garden that you might not see or be aware of.